Research

Academic Staff and postgraduate research students are engaged in a wide range of research projects in both Museum and Heritage Studies.

Current research projects

Dr Avril Alba

Redeeming the Holocaust: The Sacred Secular Museum

Redeeming the Holocaust progresses the idea of the contemporary memorial museum as a 'sacred space' through an exploration of three major Holocaust memorial museums. For while these institutions are often proclaimed 'sacred spaces' by scholars and the visiting public alike, exactly what the sacred comprises in these spaces is rarely articulated. Where attempts at definition have been made they often remain at a descriptive level only. The failure to fully theorize the sacred in these contexts constitutes a lacuna in our understanding both of the ever-increasing attraction of these sites and of contemporary notions of the sacred more generally. In exploring and articulating exactly what the sacred comprises in these spaces this project challenges and extends contemporary debates in Holocaust history, representation, theology and museology.

Australian Holocaust Memory, Human Rights and the Contemporary Museum

A collaborative project with Assoc Professor Jennifer Barrett and Professor A. Dirk Moses that explores the nexus between Holocaust and Human Rights museums through the prism of the Sydney Jewish Museum. The project seeks to develop a distinctively Australian contribution to contemporary national and international debates on the nature and utility of Holocaust museums and memorials, and how they relate to broader global trends in museology and museums, focusing on the connections between these institutions and the increasing number of human rights museums internationally. In so doing, the project also engages with and extends understandings of the public utility of Holocaust memory and representation as well as the role of the museum as 'public intellectual'.

'Here there is no why'–so why do we come here? Is a Pedagogy of Atrocity Possible?

This project addresses the pedagogical difficulties evident in what I label 'atrocity education', through examining the effects of increasingly popular educational journeys to the sites of former Nazi death and concentration camps. Key questions under consideration include: Does learning about the Holocaust in situ foster deep learning and critical understanding of the historical period or does on site experience simply generate more intense feelings of distress and emotion than classroom-based learning? If the latter, can these experiences be harnessed by the educator to impart a different 'kind' of knowledge? In engaging with these issues the project foregrounds the difficulties and potentialities inherent in pedagogic engagement with affect and emotion in on site education. For if, indeed, the transmission of historical knowledge is secondary to the production of affect in these self-proclaimed 'educational' journeys, then what, exactly, do participants hope to 'learn' and educators seek to 'teach'?

Avril Alba's full research profile


Assoc Prof Jennifer Barrett

International museum networks and social justice

Towards the end of World War 2 the International Council of Museums (ICOM) was established on the basis of humanist principles; to create and develop cooperation between the ‘world’s museums’ and a commitment to ‘serve the museum institution and professionalism’. The key proponents included a number of senior figures from prominent museums with strong national affiliations in the US and Europe. In 1947 the organisation gained recognition from UNESCO 'in the form of a cooperation agreement’. It maintains close relations to this day, sharing the ICOM-UNESCO Documentation Centre in Paris.

In the early period of the organization’s history the membership was primarily museum directors from ‘first-world’ countries. ICOM saw itself as a diplomatic forum for multilateral conventions and believed that it had an important role to play in promoting ethical standards and upholding the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in museums around the world.

Despite many challenges to the concept of universal human rights, and in the face of multiple violations of human rights since its founding, ICOM continues to advocate standards across the museum sector, namely with its ICOM International Code of Ethics. The rise of developing networks, such as the Federation of Human Rights Museums and the Pacific Island Museums Association, raises important questions however, about international museum networks and individual museums in relation to political change. Do ICOM and individual museums legitimate discourses of UNECSO? How do international networks of cultural institutions advance democracy and social justice in the 21st Century?

Museums, human rights and universalism reconsidered

Human rights in museums in the twenty-first century draw largely upon the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Central to these declarations is a notion of the universal. Some critical discourses of human rights in philosophy, anthropology and sociology oppose universalist claims on the basis that individual rights are not self-evident universals, while others acknowledge the contested nature of human rights discourses and argue that it is necessarily social, cultural, relational and therefore pluralist in some way. Part of the problem is that ‘universal’ and ‘human rights’ are two contested discursive frames deployed by museums with little immediate clarity about what exactly they do in terms of museum practice. This raises an important question; are some museums merely appropriating these frames to provide normative legitimacy for their practices? The question may also be inverted; do museums legitimate human rights discourses? Are museums sites for negotiation and agency with respect to human rights?

Australian Holocaust Memory, Human Rights and the Contemporary Museum

A collaborative project with Avril Alba and Professor A. Dirk Moses that explores the nexus between Holocaust and Human Rights museums through the prism of the Sydney Jewish Museum. The project seeks to develop a distinctively Australian contribution to contemporary national and international debates on the nature and utility of Holocaust museums and memorials, and how they relate to broader global trends in museology and museums, focusing on the connections between these institutions and the increasing number of human rights museums internationally. In so doing, the project also engages with and extends understandings of the public utility of Holocaust memory and representation as well as the role of the museum as ‘public intellectual’.

Human rights and heritage: limitations in theory and practice

This is a collaborative project with Annie Clarke that examines the increasing use of human rights frameworks in theory and practice, in the field of heritage studies. To contextualise this rise in interest in human rights, we identify how these concerns appear to arise as a result of the limitations of universal codes and policies related to heritage. This research then explores significant tensions in heritage studies around the limitations of the universal application of international policies and agendas about human rights, and consider how these run parallel to discourses in other fields engaged with human rights. This research explores these limitations by surveying and analysing the theoretical frameworks used in heritage studies and human rights by referring to specific case studies.

Australian Artists in the Contemporary Museum

This research (with Jacqueline Millner) proposes a re-reading of the relationship between artists and the contemporary museum. In Australia in particular, the museum has played a significant role in the colonial project and this has generally been considered as the predominant mode of artists' engagement with such institutions and collections. Australian Artists in the Contemporary Museum expands the post-colonial frame of reference used to interpret this work, to demonstrate the broader implications of the relationship between artists and the museum, and thus to offer an alternative way of understanding recent contemporary practices.

The central argument is that artists' engagement with the museum has shifted from politically motivated critique taking place in museums of fine art, towards interventions taking place in non-art museums that focus on the creation of knowledge more broadly. Such interventions assume a number of forms, including the artist acting as curator, art works that highlight the use of taxonomic modes of display and categorization, and the re-consideration of the aesthetics of collections to suggest different ways of interpreting objects and their history. Central to these interventions is the challenge to better connect the museum and its publics.

Jennifer Barrett's full research profile


Dr Annie Clarke

The Quarantine Project

ARC Linkage Project (LP120200259), 2012-2015

The archaeology and history of quarantine: The Quarantine Project is a collaborative research initiative based around the former Quarantine Station at Sydney’s North Head. Uniting archaeologists, historians and heritage experts, we are documenting the many rock inscriptions and other markings made at the site through its 150 years of operation from 1835 to 1984. There are well over 1000 such inscriptions in the sandstone, each serving as an enduring ‘postcard’ connecting modern visitors to stories from the past. Many of these stories - of people, journeys, diseases and incarceration - will be analysed and shared via our research.
Research Team: Dr Annie Clarke, Professor Alison Bashford, Peter Hobbins, Ursula Frederick (University of Sydney).
Industry Partner: Mawland Group

Producers and Collectors: Uncovering the Role of Indigenous Agency in the Formation of Museum Collections

ARC Linkage Project (LP0669137) 2006-2009

The aim of this project is to investigate how indigenous agency might be identified from 19th and 20th century ethnographic museum collections. Collections from Central Province, PNG form the focus of the analysis. A parallel study of Papuan objects offered for in historical auction and sale catalogues extends the contexts is also part of the project. The study takes an archaeological, assemblage-based approach to the analysis of both the museum collections and the text-based material of the catalogues.
Research Team: Dr Annie Clarke (University of Sydney), Dr Robin Torrence (Australian Museum), Dr Jude Philp (Macleay Museum), Erna Lilje (University of Sydney).
Industry Partner: The Australian Museum

Signs of a Distant Past: interpretive signage and the representation of Indigenous history in Australian protected areas

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research Support Scheme 2011

This project will examine how Indigenous culture and history is presented to the public in protected areas through a textual analysis of interpretive signage. In protected areas different representational tropes are used to interpret colonial/settler, natural heritage and indigenous places. Do these contrasting interpretive strategies signify to visitors a hierarchy of place value in protected areas? Does the signage at indigenous places alienate contemporary communities from country and history through a distant and detached view of culture, authorised via the template of scientific objectivity?
Research Team: Dr Annie Clarke (University of Sydney), Dr Emma Waterton (University of Western Sydney)

Annie Clarke's full research profile


Dr Chiara O'Reilly

Suitcases, Boats and Bridges: Telling migrant stories in Australian museums
Collaborative project, Dr Chiara O'Reilly with Dr Nina Parish (University of Bath)
Funding for this project includes:

  • Dr Chiara O'Reilly, School of Letters Arts and Media Research Support Scheme 2013
  • Dr Nina Parish
    EUOSSIC, Erasmus Mundus 2012/2013
    International Researcher Mobility Award University of Bath 2013

Museums in Australia have played an important role in telling and documenting migrant stories. The first museums dedicated to migrant groups in Australia date from the early 1970s and were initially community run. Since then migrant history has increasingly become part of larger government funded museums. This research project aims to critically consider the effect of these changes on how migrant stories are told, and how at different institutional levels museums are engaging with migrant groups. The study offers a new approach in its consideration of examples across different types and scales of museums. The project examines how museums are responding to migration - how are different formats (dedicated spaces, single and multi-community displays, virtual exhibitions, etc.) being used to exhibit and collect this history - and what is the significance of the approach at both a local and national level.

Research workshop: Suitcases, Boats and Bridges: Telling migrant stories in Australian museums supported by the Australian National Maritime Museum and the University of Bath. 2 August 2013 Invited speakers included Padmini Sebastian (Director of the Immigration Museum, Melbourne); Kim Tao (Curator, Post-­Federation Immigration, Australian National Maritime Museum); Dr Gwenda Tavan (La Trobe University, Melbourne and Dr Aurelien Mondon (University of Bath).

Must see: Blockbuster exhibitions in Australia in the 21st century
Collaborative research project with Dr Anna Lawrenson
Funding for this project:
Dr O’Reilly School of Letters Arts and Media Research Support Scheme 2011

For the public the blockbuster is the most spectacular museum event providing them with a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity to view the rare, the valuable and the unique artefacts of the world, and although they are a vital part of contemporary programming they are often maligned as a populist format. This study seeks to examine the significance of the blockbuster in terms of advancing scholarship and their contribution to an institutions prestige and identity. It will consider how these exhibits create opportunities for innovation within exhibition development, design, and visitor experience and how they function as a mechanism for audience development. The proposed research aims to consider differences between blockbusters across the museum and gallery sector in order to identify how they are developed, consumed and what impact they currently have on cultural engagement.

Chiara O'Reilly's full research profile